Suzanne Farrell Ballet at Cal Performances

Preserving the Legacy

It’s hard to believe that all the works of choreographer George Balanchine are not graven in stone somewhere, that some exist merely in the memory of dancers who are now beginning to forget them. But no suitable notation exists in the world of dance; almost all written recording systems are flawed or awkward at best. Film and videography grew up while Balanchine was coming into his own, and the problems of recording that exist within the film industry itself are compounded in a world in which the transitoriness of live performance is not only the norm but perhaps the preferred means of expression.

The Suzanne Farrell Ballet, based at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., with its Balanchine Preservation Initiative hopes to remedy this historical problem as it exists for Balanchine’s ballets. The initiative serves to reintroduce rarely seen works by the great New York City Ballet choreographer to audiences around the world.

Who better to achieve this goal than Suzanne Farrell and her company? Farrell, the last great Balanchine ballerina, was the dancer on whom the stately and elegant “Diamonds” section of Jewels was set. With her long shapely limbs, head exquisitely placed on a long neck, innate musicality and blazingly passionate attack, she was the diamond in Balanchine’s company crown. She was with Balanchine for 20 years out of his career that lasted over 60 years.

In two performances for Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall, Farrell’s nine-year-old company presented almost exclusively work choreographed by Balanchine. While Saturday’s performance focused on various pas de deux in the Balanchine repertoire, with narratives by Farrell, Sunday’s performance was a selection Balanchine ensemble works with a short piece from Romeo and Juliet, choreographed by Maurice Béjart, to whose company Farrell escaped in the early 1970s after she married dancer Paul Mejia against Balanchine’s wishes.

Sunday opened with the Pas d’action from Divertimento No. 15, set to the Mozart’s music. The work a series mostly of short solos, each one classical in feel and the whole moving closer to the quick short movements and breath taking extensions that were signature movements of Balanchine’s choreography. The second piece was the rarely seen Contrapuntal Blues pas de deux from Clarinade, danced by the delicately, and suitably hyperextended, long-legged Elisabeth Holowchuk and Ted Seymour. This snappy, jazzy duet set to Morton Gould’s Derivations for Clarinet and Jazz Band, was originally choreographed for Farrell and the amazing Arthur Mitchell. The choreography for the accompanying ensemble has been lost, leaving only the reconstructed pas de deux.

Béjart’s Scene d’amour from Romeo and Juliet followed with Sara Ivan and Momchil Mladenov. Béjart’s choreography was always more provocatively sensual than Balanchine’s, and these two dancers were able to infuse the choreography’s balancing act with intimacy and refined eroticism of lyric dancing.

The program ended with the quintessential Balanchine work, Agon. Danced in leotards and tights, it’s a wilderland of crossed limbs, extensions and vase like configurations, small quick manipulations of feet and hands, and the inevitable celtic knots of restless dancers moving in, over, between and through each other. Natalia Magnicaballi and Momchil Mladenov danced the pas de deux that is the center and soul of the piece with abstract aplomb.

While the company has many lovely dancers, who also exhibit many of the features of Balanchine dancers, none have the reckless brilliance of Farrell—her sense of total commitment to the force of the movement. She was a completely fearless dancer.

—Jaime Robles

Originally published in the Piedmont Post